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Charles-Valentin ALKAN (1813-1888)
Organ Works: Volume 1

Benedictus Op. 54 (1859) [8:53]
Douze Études pour les pieds seulement (Nos. 1-6) (1869) [18:09]
Onze Grandes Préludes et une Transcription du Messie de Handel Op.66 (1867) [49:51]
Kevin Bowyer (organ)
rec. Blackburn Cathedral, May 2005. DDD
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Given the competition, anyone starting a new classical record label nowadays needs to be both brave and have a seriously good business strategy. This is the first disc I have heard from the recently inaugurated Toccata Classics, brainchild of Martin Anderson. The most obvious strategic plank seems to be unusual repertoire – here bringing us music that has not previously been recorded. It will surely be easy enough to find unrecorded works, the challenge will be to find unrecorded masterpieces. In this respect, Alkan’s organ music is not a bad starting place. Three discs of it are on their way and, judging from volume 1, they are works of stature and originality.

Alkan’s legendary pianism and improbable compositions for his instrument are becoming well-recognised thanks to advocacy from the likes of Ronald Smith and Marc-André Hamelin. Busoni ranked him with Liszt, Chopin, Schumann and Brahms and one of the five greatest composers for the piano since Beethoven. By contrast, his prowess on the organ and compositions for it have been largely forgotten. In 1834 Alkan won the organ prize at the Paris Conservatoire. Around this time he became acquainted with two leading organists – Louis Lefébure-Wely and César Franck, and they became the dedicatees of the Études and Grandes Préludes respectively, works which were written much later. This music is less "fantastic" than Alkan’s major piano works and it requires less virtuosity but more expressive sensitivity to play it.

This disc opens with Benedictus, a work which begins in surprisingly brooding fashion but ultimately reaches a magnificent climax. The six Études which follow represent the first half of a remarkable set which makes great demands of the organist’s feet ... and none from the hands. Here Alkan was well-ahead of his time. The Grandes Préludes which conclude the disc follow an ordered key pattern descending in thirds. Instead of a twelfth prelude Alkan concludes the work by freely transcribing the recitative "Thy rebuke hath broken his heart" and arioso "Behold, and see" from the Messiah. The effect is rather disconcerting – a bit like an encore which follows attacca and ends rather abruptly.

Kevin Bowyer is a fine advocate for this music. He is a leading British organist whose biggest claim to fame was the world premiere of Sorabji’s Organ Symphony – a two hour work which had lain unplayed for sixty years. Inter alia he has recorded the complete organ works of Bach and Alain – I am only familiar with the latter but can recommend it highly (a two-disc set on Nimbus).

My sense is that excellence in documentation is another strategic aim for this label and rightly so at "full price". There is a very detailed and interesting essay on the music by Malcolm MacDonald and a likeable note about the artist. Rather than the usual overstated eulogy, this seems to have written in consultation with Kevin Bowyer and makes him seem like a human being. For example, we learn that his favourite pastime is sleeping. Performing Alkan must be exhausting but at least the audience isn’t going to sleep through this music.

The quality of recorded sound represents my one reservation about this disc. I do not have any comparative material from Blackburn Cathedral to hand and the problems could be mainly a reflection of the venue. The impression I had was of an acoustic with too much resonance, and an instrument too closely recorded. There is also a persistent slight audible background hum. I made some comparisons with some other organ discs, including Kevin Bowyer’s Alain recordings and these reinforced my impression that this sound is not out of the top-drawer. The sonic reservations are not, however, sufficiently off-putting to preclude a strong recommendation for this disc.

Patrick C Waller




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